Al Bello/Getty Images

Was Duke’s zone exposed, or did the Blue Devils run into a North Carolina team we’ve overlooked this season?

9 Comments

NEW YORK — The change was gradual.

Duke has forever been known as a man-to-man team. It was the ethos of Mike Krzyzewski’s defense. Pressure guards, deny passing lanes, dare ball-handlers to try and beat their defenders one-on-one, let them try and run ball-screens. That is who they’ve been for years and years and years.

But that wasn’t working this season, not when what makes the Blue Devils so damn good is the fact that their front court of two freshmen fives is unstoppable. Wendell Carter is a lottery pick, a workhorse on the block that can wall-up at the rim and pound the glass and overwhelm just about any defender that comes his way, and he’s clearly and undoubtedly the second-best big man on their roster. When you can force defenses to try and figure out how they are going to slow down Marvin Bagley III with a college power forward, you’re coming out ahead more often than not.

“He’s different,” said Nolan Smith, a four-year player for Duke that was a first-team all-american as a senior, a first round pick and could very well still an NBA point guard if his health hadn’t given out on him. He’s been around. He would know. “I’ve a seen lot of guys in the NBA, and his second and third jump is second to none.”

The problem is that they just couldn’t figure out how to make it work defensively, which is not an uncommon problem to have when dealing with freshmen. There is a reason that the saying among coaches is that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, but since becoming a one-and-done factory, Coach K no longer has that luxury. He doesn’t get a couple of seasons to teach his guys how to defend the way that he wants them do. He gets a couple of months, and by early February, it was obvious to everyone.

Their man-to-man defense?

It wasn’t working.

“We tried a lot of different things in man throughout the season,” Smith said. “Icing ball-screens to blacking ball-screens to switching ball-screens.”

They had to make a change.

“We never declared it,” Grayson Allen said of becoming a zone team. “It was just, OK, we’re going to play zone this game, so we prepared zone and man. The next game we prepared zone more than man. The next game we prepared all zone. And it started to work for us. We had a stretch where three or four teams couldn’t score against us.”

It stuck.

It turned Duke from one of college basketball’s top 80 defenses to one that has climbed all the way to 7th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The defense that they have played over the course of the last nine games is on par with the defense that the likes of Virginia and Cincinnati have played all season long. It’s why they are currently the only team to rank in the top ten of both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. It’s why there are many that believe Duke is not one of, if not the favorite to win the national title in San Antonio three-and-a-half weeks from today.

That was until they faced off with North Carolina on Friday night.

The Tar Heels are uniquely suited to being able to attack a 2-3 zone. The way that the Tar Heels play this season is different from any Roy Williams-coached team in recent memory. Thanks to the early and unexpected departure of Tony Bradley last year, the Tar Heels have had to embrace the small-ball ideal. Theo Pinson, a play-making wing by trade, is their power forward. Luke Maye, a stretch-four through and through, is their starting center. That’s a far cry from the UNC teams of yesteryear, when Tyler Hansbrough and Sean May and Kennedy Meeks turned the paint into a beefcake factory.

But it also allows UNC to slice up a 2-3 zone, and Pinson is the key that unlocks it all. His ability to pass from the high-post combined with the fact that the shooting ability of Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the perimeter makes them a nightmare offensively, one that cannot be overwhelmed by a front line the size of Duke’s. Bagley finished with 19 points and 13 boards against the Tar Heels on Friday night, but he had to work for those stats. Pinson — who stands 6-foot-6 with long arms, the physicality that comes with being a senior and the athleticism to boot — held his own on the block against a top three pick.

There aren’t a lot of college fours that are going to be able to do both of those things.

Which begs the question: Did North Carolina provide the nation with a diagram on how to beat Duke’s now-vaunted 2-3 zone, or was this simply a product of the Tar Heels being a perfect matchup for Duke at this point in time?

Let’s take a dive into the numbers, shall we?

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

According to SportVU, which is a service that provides spatial data on things like how open shooters are, 35 of the 42 jumpers that the Tar Heels attempted on Friday night were open jumpers, which is defined as having no defender within five feet of the shooter on the release. They made just 14 of those jumpers, a 40 percent clip and much lower than the average of roughly 60 percent shooting on open jump shots. Put another way, UNC scored just 1.02 points-per-possession against Duke’s defense, but that may had have as much to do with the fact that the Tar Heels missed shots that they usually would make more than the fact that Duke’s defense was impenetrable.

“If we were playing man and they shot 18 out of 24 from 3, then you’d be asking why didn’t you defend the 3 better,” Krzyzewski said. “But holding them to 74 points was good. They’re one of the explosive teams, as explosive as anybody. And they have two kids that can really handle the ball well in the middle of the zone in Pinson and Maye. So that’s good for us. The two games we played here, Colson can do that, too, so we got a chance to work our zone against probably two of the best teams that would work against us, and we gave up 70 and 74 points.

“The zone wasn’t bad. … It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.”

I would tend to agree with Coach K here.

Let’s work through some zone theory for a second.

When the point guard has the ball at the top, the idea is to brings the wing defender so high to force passes to the corner or short corner to be thrown with air under it to give the defenders a chance to recover. The center is supposed to stay at the rim to protect against a lob to the opposing center on the baseline, and it’s the guards job at the top of the zone to keep the pass from getting to the high post. It’s the last part of that paragraph that was the biggest issue on Friday.

“Defensively, me and Tre [Duval] up top needed to do a little bit better job of trying to keep it out of the middle,” Allen said.

So there are some issues there.

But more than anything, Duke ran into a team that is built perfectly to break down the defense that they are playing.

And they still found a way to erase a 16-point lead with 5:33 left on the clock, getting two possessions in the final minute with a chance to tie.

Duke is not without their flaws this season, and we could spend another 1,500 words talking about some of the issues they have on the offensive end of the floor with their spacing.

But more than anything, Friday night taught us that this North Carolina team is one that we need to take seriously.

Duke can still win a national title this season. They still might be the favorite.

And North Carolina can win it all, too.

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Leave a comment

North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

Kalamazoo Courthouse
1 Comment

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

Duke athletics
Leave a comment

Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
1 Comment

The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

(John Weast/Getty Images)

TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.